AUSTIN (KXAN) — Gov. Greg Abbott announced a plan aimed at aiding victims of sexual assault, human trafficking and students involved in inappropriate relationships with teachers.
“Nothing is more important than the safety and security of our communities,” Abbott said in a video statement.
“Working together, we will ensure a safe or future for the Lone Star State,” he said.
Part of Abbott’s plan would fund crime lab testing “to eliminate the backlog of sexual assault evidence kits,” by committing $14 million for 2020-2021. It would also create regional human trafficking squads for $22 million at the state level and increase penalties for traffickers.
“It’s about time,” Democratic gubernatorial candidate Lupe Valdez, former Dallas County Sheriff, said in a statement. “As someone who has been in law enforcement for decades, on the front lines of combating human trafficking, I welcome Gov. Abbott’s initial steps and recognition that something must be done. I sincerely hope all of Texas’ elected leadership takes this beyond campaign season press releases.”
Another part of his plan would allow the Texas Rangers to handle sexual assault claims against state employees at the Capitol, including legislators.
“Public officials have an obligation to take allegations against them with extreme seriousness,” Abbott’s plan indicated. “Doing so means providing a responsible and just process by which claims can be reviewed. No administrative arm of government has the relevant training and expertise to investigate sexual assault claims.”
A Texas Democratic Party spokesperson said reform should have come a long time ago.
“Regardless of political party, all people deserve the right to work in a place free of sexual harassment or misconduct. All Texans would benefit from resources and education to prevent harassment and abuse, and guidelines to report and address harassment when it does occur,” Texas Democratic Party spokesperson Tariq Thowfeek said. “No politician should ever be above the law or play by their own set of rules.”
A key component of Abbott’s proposal for the next legislative session included the implementation of a “do not hire” registry of adults “barred from school employment” due to unlawful interactions with a minor.
“This plan will continue our fight to crack down on predatory teacher-student relationships in Texas,” Abbott said.
Anyone on the registry would not be allowed to be employed as a “teacher, librarian, educational aide, administrator, counselor, school nurse/medical aide or any other position with direct, unsupervised contact with students.”
Lawmakers worked to crack down on teacher-student relationships in the past, with mild success. Legislation that took effect in September 2017 (Senate Bill 7) to hike penalties for districts, administrators and teachers who are not in compliance with reporting rules, but a bill that included a “do not hire” provision failed partially because of its million dollar price tag.
According to the Texas Education Agency, 302 claims of inappropriate relationships were reported in Fiscal Year 2016-2017, with 222 cases reported the year prior.
“[The new plan] is really a continuation of what we worked on during the last legislative session just last year, to stop this practice of what we call ‘passing the trash,’ or ‘pass the trash,'” said Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs. “[Cedar Park Republican State Rep.] Tony Dale and I had filed separate bills that dealt with this issue where we would go from one school district, have an issue, and it would go in this unknown secret file, they would resign, and then continue their career at other districts.”
“We really increased the penalties,” Isaac said. “There’s no longer a way to for people to do secret files without feeling the repercussions that we felt in SB 7.”
“But, a ‘do not hire’ list is something that we need to do,” he added.
Part of the new proposal would allow the state board of education to temporarily suspend the teaching certificate of someone who was criminally charged with an offense relating to sex or violence. Another piece would create an online portal for district leaders to report improper teacher-student relationships.
To read the full plan, click here.